Wind power has come of age (see here). Concentrated solar thermal power is next.

Southern California Edison has contracted with BrightSource Energy Inc. for seven projects totaling 1,300 megawatts of concentrated solar-thermal power. CSP is a core climate solution, probably the zero-carbon form of electricity with the most potential, since it can be easily integrated with thermal storage and provide power reliably throughout the day and evening.

The agreement, which now requires approval from the California Public Utilities Commission, calls for a series of totaling 1,300 megawatts. The first of these solar power plants, sized at 100 megawatts and located in Ivanpah, Calif., could be operating in early 2013 and is expected to produce 286,000 megawatt-hours of renewable electricity per year … The full 1,300 megawatts of projects will produce 3.7 billion kilowatt-hours of clean energy and avoid more than two million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

These are air-cooled power plants, so they sacrifice some efficiency to dramatically reduce water consumption in the arid regions in which they operate.

For a discussion of current and projected near-term CSP deployment see “CSP update” here and, more recently, here. As of November, “some 60 plants are either under construction or under contract worldwide — with most in either Spain or the United States — for a total capacity just north of 5,700 megawatts.”

On the one hand, the global recession and credit crunch may slow that down, but on the other hand, compensating for that is state renewable electricity standards, Obama’s commitment to double renewable production by the end of his first term, and the European Union’s strong renewable energy targets.

For some of the history of CSP, see my April 2008 Salon piece.

OK, maybe “will” should be “may help,” and CP readers have been hearing about CSP for a while (see here).

It is the best source of clean energy to replace coal and sustain economic development. I bet that it will deliver more power every year this century than coal with carbon capture and storage — for much less money and with far less environmental damage.

How much less? Many industry experts told me CSP will likely deliver power for well under $0.10 per kilowatt hour fully installed in the next decade.

What is its market potential? I think it could be more than two wedges, which is several thousand gigawatts:

It would be straightforward to build CSP systems at whatever rate industry and governments needed, ultimately 50 to 100 gigawatts a year growth or more.

Why is CSP so important?

Because it’s the only form of clean electricity that can meet all the demanding requirements of this century …

Solar baseload’s ultimate “trump card” is, of course, storage, as the Daily Climate explained well:

The ability to store power for later use is a holy grail of sorts for renewable energy developers. Wind and photovoltaic plants force utilities to use the power on the spot or dump the load. Various batteries and capacitors are in the works for those technologies, but none so far match the smooth efficiency or low cost of solar thermal’s ability to hoard sunlight.

A plant designed with storage can shunt the hot oil from the mirrors to a giant insulated heat sink — a vat of molten salt, say, or a chunk of concrete or pig iron. Then after the sun sets but while demand remains high, that heat can be tapped to generate steam.

Or if a cloud rolls over a plant’s mirrors, or an afternoon thunderstorm stalls overhead, hundreds of megawatts of juice won’t suddenly drop off the grid. Utility operators can simply tap the tank.

“We’ve sort of stumbled on this thing with storage,” said Tom R. Mancini, program manager for concentrated solar power technologies at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. “The round-trip efficiency is 90 percent … Solar thermal is made for this.”

Arizona Public Service is building a plant that can keep the sun’s power for six hours past sunset, allowing managers to meet evening demand with mid-afternoon sun. A utility in Spain hopes to develop a plant that can keep heat for seven. Engineers figure 14 hours or more is feasible.

Wired has a good discussion of the new deal and of the history of BrightSource:

BrightSource is the reincarnation of Luz International, which built the only currently operating solar thermal facility during the 1980s in the Mojave Desert. After natural gas and energy prices plunged in 1985, that operation became unprofitable. The group’s engineers and founders moved the business to Israel, where they continued to work on their technology.

Why Luz failed is a sad but interesting story I will say for another post.

Kudos to SCE for pursuing and closing this deal even in the midst of the greatest recession and credit crunch since the great depression.

[Note: Going forward, I will try not to refer to a CSP plant as solar thermal baseload if it doesn’t have storage. The BrightSource plants will not have storage.]

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.